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Of Chiefs, Drumming, Dancing , Fufu and Culture

By Gilbert Nii-Okai Addy

I’ve just been looking at these pictures ( clink on the link above ) from the Chicago GhanaFest a week or two ago; said to be the biggest pan-Ghanaian cultural festival outside Ghana.

I just could not help wondering why on earth so many Ghanaians seem so psychologically and emotionally tethered to this increasingly anachronistic and indeed nonsensical chieftaincy institution. There mare now so many  traditional  “”Chiefs” outside Ghana – that they may one day rival in number those within Ghana itself.  Culture is never static and I am not sure these symbols of ethnicity and ethnic division really do advance our modern interests as a nation in any way at all.
I have never been able to understand just how and why chieftaincy is or should be regarded as the bedrock of Ghanaian culture. I am a Ga – and  proud one at that, I got a very good grade in it at GCE “O” level and so , in terms of grammar and literature , i probably know the language as well as or even perhaps than most people who speak it , and do colloquially. I have an interest in the history – and future of the Ga and indeed other peoples of Ghana.
Yet, I couldn’t care less about who the Ga Mantse is ( nor any other Mantse for that matter . I have never been to any Mantse palace nor have i ever had to interact with any Mantse. I certainly do not think I am any poorer, culturally, for that. I certainly do not subscribe to this ridiculous notion and practice that there should be some traditional “ Ruling Houses “ who form , in this day and age, the ruling class of ethnic group or any other, and from whose ranks chiefs should be chosen. Time magazine some months ago even had a feature article on the new phenomenon of “foreign” and often non-African chiefs ( so-called Development chiefs ) that has become fairly common and even fashionable.
The current chaos regarding the Ga Mantse and the various other chieftaincies among the Ga is, I think, ample enough evidence that among the Ga at least – who are mainly urban and by virtue of Accra being the capital are veritably the ethnic group with the most exposure to modernity in its various forms, chieftaincy has totally collapsed.
Most Ga people living in Accra would regard the Ga Mantse issue , which is now before a Regional house of chiefs sitting in Dodowa, as a quixotically arcane issue which is spectacularly irrelevant to their lives. Anyone doubting this could perhaps try carrying out a straw poll in Accra and ask people to name three or four members of this Regional house of chiefs  !!!
Equally I couldn’t care very much who some Omanhene or Togbe of some town or village might be. I do accept that in a democracy, space has to be reserved for all perspectives and there are many Ghanaians for whom chieftaincy matters a lot and is probably an important element of their self-identity. Most Ghanaians , where they do, in fact only really care about their own local and ethnic chieftaincies anyway. Absolutely no chief or king cuts across any ethnic boundaries and are such are veritably symbols of division – some would call this “diversity” I concede – than of unity
However, beyond romanticising  the past and traditional notions of “culture” isn’t it about time our people started working on moving on from this and perhaps broadened the notion of culture in the Ghanaian context to encompass elements and practices that are more relevant to the present and future realities ?
Ghanaian “cultural” events are nearly always exclusively about chiefs, food(  eating of Kpokpoi, banku, fufu yam )  traditional drumming and dancing  when foreign dignitaries visit Ghana – and indeed other African countries – they are nearly always subjected to traditional drumming and dancing at airports. Curiously, European , american and other nations never feel they have to do this even though they invariably have their own traditional cultures as well.
Someone recently made an interesting point about  the radio station Peace FM in Ghana which broadcasts exclusively in Twi. It is usually pretty mediocre Twi though , i must hasten to add,  as even I with my very limited Twi can follow the gist of their broadcasts as they are so interspersed with English that the Twi spoken is quite often around 40-50% English .
Anyway to get  back to the point , this person highlighted the fact that the Peace FM website ( ) is entirely in English with not a word or sentence anywhere at any time in Twi !
Why is this ? The answer is obviously the fact that most people who speak Twi in Ghana – even native Twi-speakers – can hardly read or write it classically. Those who can read Twi can invariably read English a lot better. Relatively few people in Ghana  learn our native languages to a high or serious enough level to read and write them seriously.
We do not publish books in our languages ( some would say that we do not publish  any serious books anyway ) , there are hardly any newspapers, magazines or journals in our native languages. The ability of younger generations of Ghanaians to speak, read and write English is declining alarmingly because some people argue and pretend that it is , somehow a foreign,  language in Ghana even though it has been in use in Ghana in one way or another for round five hundred years and is very much part of our pan-Ghanaian culture. Tellingly, just about any family in Ghana today that can afford it will send their children to an “international school” – that is the quintessentially Ghanaian term for a private school, where the emphasis is on English as the medium, of instruction and social interaction.
Should we therefore not moving on towards making literature and literary pursuits as central elements of our culture and away from this emphasis on chiefs , drumming and dancing and the eating of fufu, kenkey, kpokpoi, yam and banku and all that ?  I have nothing against drumming and dancing and the eating of traditional foods . i am myself a keen and active musician and anyone who types my name ” Addy” alongside , “drums”  and ” Ghana”  into Google or youTube will instantly discover that some of the most internationally famous drummers from Ghana are called Addy and indeed are relatives of mine of whom i am quite proud ( e.g Mustapha Tettey, Yacub Tetteh, Obo, Aja, Chata Addy and others )
However given the fact that education and literacy – and literature –  are key elements of what economists refer to as “intangible capital” , which we lack and which is central to lifting our people from poverty and ignorance, should we not give more emphases to these as elements of our “culture” in the twenty-first century .
Why shouldn’t Ghanaian cultural festivals showcase cultural expressions like :
  1. new publications in our native languages and English which is by far and will always be our common and most important language ;
  2. new products from Ghana such as value-adding processed foods, new garments, in short things which employ people, add value to the economy and give our people a sense of confidence and competitiveness in today’s world of globalisation and fierce economic competition
  3. new works of art, music. poetry which will showcase our Ghanaian cultures as indeed dynamic and modern rather than static and stuck in a romanticised and indeed romantic bygone era
I do not of course expect everyone to agree with my thoughts and perspectives but at least this is my Saturday morning rant for today.

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The Matters Arising blog is a collection of thought-provoking, thought-leadership pieces sprinkled with some blue-sky thinking on pertinent issues affecting African communities both in the diaspora and at home. It includes articles on culture, politics, social and economic advancement, diversity and inclusion, community cohesion topics. It is also a repository of the political history of Ghana, traditions of the Gadagme people of Ghana, and the Pan-African politics of Kwame Nkrumah. Read, enjoy, like, share, and join!


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